Research Summary

Nature as a community health tool: The case for healthcare providers and systems

Evidence linking nature and health strongly supports the idea of looking to nature as a community health tool

American Journal of Preventive Medicine
2020

The term “social determinants of health” (SDH) is sometimes used in reference to social and economic factors, health-related behaviors, and neighborhood conditions impacting individual and community health. While it’s generally understood that nature can serve as an SDH, it’s not often included in the growing pool of healthcare-generated SDH interventions. For all communities -- but possibly more so in low-resourced communities – this represents a missed health-promoting opportunity. This article makes the case for nature as an SDH intervention and provides specific recommendations on how health-care providers can leverage this health-promoting resource.

Three broad categories of research support the use of nature for promoting the health of individuals and communities: population-level studies; research evaluating the immediate physical and mental health impacts of nature contact; and intervention or quasi-experimental studies offering some empirical evidence of a causal link between nature contact and positive health outcomes. Findings from population-level studies indicate that many physical, mental, and social health benefits are associated with living near nature. Studies focusing on immediate health benefits of active and/or passive engagement with nature report improved blood pressure, decreased stress and depression, as well as other positive physical and mental health outcomes. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies provide convincing evidence of the effectiveness of different types of nature-based interventions in promoting individual and community health. Adding new green space to low-resourced neighborhoods, for example, “led to reduced crime, improved perception of safety, more social connections, and reduced feelings of depression.”

Evidence linking nature and health strongly supports the idea of looking to nature as a community health tool. One way to leverage this tool is to make nature contact counseling a part of programs offered through primary care offices. The goal of such counseling is to influence how patients interact with nature in their existing neighborhood. Another way involves health systems making greater investments in directly changing neighborhood conditions. Examples of related SDH interventions for improved neighborhoods include renovating blighted homes and greening vacant lots.

While nature is not a cure all, healthcare providers and health systems are strongly urged “to seriously consider how to leverage the health benefits of nature in the growing SDH intervention movement.”